ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

The Steller's Sea Cow

by Murray Lundberg

      To the crew of Vitus Bering's ship St. Peter, shipwrecked off the coast of Kamchatka in early November 1741, the huge, easily-hunted sea cow was a godsend that helped most of them to survive and return home. Within 3 decades, though, their countrymen had hunted sea cows to extinction.

      Steller's sea cows were the largest, and the only cold-water members of the scientific order Sirenia, to which manatees and dugongs also belong. Although they look rather like whales or sea lions, the order's closest relatives are elephants and hyrax. Feeding on sea grasses (in the case of the Steller's sea cow, primarily kelp), they are the only aquatic herbivorous mammals. Historically, about 1,500 - 2,000 members of the species known taxonomically as Hydrodamalis gigas ("giant sea calf") lived in the shallow waters off the coasts of Alaska and the Russian Far East, centred in the Commander Islands. Although they undoubtedly faced some hunting pressure from the Aleut and Eskimos, both of whom were expert whalers, their population was probably quite stable.

      Georg Wilhelm Steller, the naturalist and physician on Bering's expedition, recorded the first, and best, descriptions of the sea cow. They were up to 28 feet long, and weighed as much as 7-8 tons; drifting just below the surface, they were often mistaken for overturned boats. With a heavy bone stucture, they had huge midsections, a disproportionately small head, and a large, flat, twin-lobed tail. The wrinkly black hide was about an inch thick and very tough, covering a fat layer between 4 and 9 inches thick - the combination provided protection from the cold, pounding by surf, and rubbing against ice and rocks. It did not provide sufficient protection from Russian weapons, though - only one out of five sea cows hit by harpoon or rifle fire was retrieved, but the majority escaped only to die at sea from their injuries.

      Their external ear openings were only about the size of a pea, but the internal ear bones were very large, so excellent hearing can be assumed, although when they were feeding, they would completely ignore even a boat. Steller sometimes described the sea cow as if they were farm animals:

These animals, like cattle, live in herds at sea, males and females going together and driving the young before them about the shore. They are occupied with nothing else but their food. The back and half the body are always seen out of the water.They eat in the same manner as the land animals, with a slow forward movement. They tear the seaweed from the rocks with the feet and chew it without cessation... During the eating they move the head and neck like an ox, and after the lapse of a few minutes they lift the head out of the water and draw fresh air with a rasping and snorting sound after the manner of horses.

      During the ten months that Steller and the other survivors of Bering's crew spent on what would later be named Bering Island, Steller was able to gather considerable information on the habits of the sea cow, as well as an extensive set of measurements of various parts of the sea cow's anatomy, allowing scientists to reconstruct the animal around skeletons that have survived. Hans Rothauscher has posted an excellent site, in both English and German, showing the progression and possible errors in such reconstructions of the sea cow.

      The meat of the sea cow, which was most often referred to as being similar to veal, remained fresh for much longer than any other available meat source, making it extremely valuable to the Russian sailors and hunters. The fat was described as tasting like sweet almond-oil. Although Bering's crew only killed their first sea cow six weeks before their escape in August 1742, the meat was crucial in restoring their strength during the final stages of building a new boat from the wreckage of the St. Peter. When they left, they took a supply of meat and fat, and stories of the incredible riches of the islands for fur hunters. Those hunters flocked to the area, and in 1768, explorer Martin Sauer entered in his journal an account of the death of the last known sea cow.

      Manatees and dugongs are the focus of worldwide conservation efforts to ensure that they don't share the fate of the Steller's sea cow. There is still a chance, though, that the sea cow isn't extinct. In the years since their generally-accepted extinction in 1768, there have been occasional reports suggesting that small colonies may have survived by moving to areas away from the Russian hunting grounds.

      In the mid-1800s, such reports were not unusual, and as recently as 1962, the crew of a Russian whaler reported seeing six animals that resembled sea cows, feeding in a bay in the Gulf of Anadyr. In 1977, a fisherman in Kamchatka reported actually touching a drifting animal that matched the description of a sea cow. But for now, those reports are just considered to be rumours, fuel for yet another Northern myth.

References & Further Reading:

  • Delphine Haley, editor - Marine Mammals of Eastern North Pacific and Arctic Waters (Seattle: Pacific Search, 1978)

    ©1999-2017 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.

    To Animals & Birds Links